In this cinematic era of remakes, sequels, pastiches and parodies, Disney’s new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast stands up relatively well against other attempts by major studios to produce more or less the same film for a second, third or fifteenth time. Disney was faced with the daunting task of breathing new life into an animated classic like 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, a film which holds the distinction of being the first full-length animated film to be nominated by the Academy for Best Picture.
But the new Beauty and the Beast is aided by a top-notch cast of relatively new faces (read: Josh Gad and Dan Stevens) and legends of the stage and screen (read: Audra McDonald and Kevin Kline). While it may be difficult for viewers of a certain age to see Emma Watson as anyone but Hermione Granger, she brings her considerable talents to her role as the intelligent and proto-feminist character of Belle.
There is no need to provide a full recapitulation of the well-known story of Beauty, taken from a French fairy tale originally written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. A bookish girl who feels like a pariah stumbles upon an enchanted castle and falls in love with a great beast because beauty is on the inside. This new version of Beauty and the Beast offers nothing truly new in regard to narrative, and perhaps rightly so.
Visually, the film is spectacular, especially when viewed in the IMAX format. Furthermore, the costuming and makeup are stunningly elaborate and truly something to behold. However, I will admit that I am a sucker for visual grandiosity, of which this Beauty and the Beast is a bountiful harvest. The musical numbers are well-choreographed and perhaps more sumptuous than in the 1991 film. For example, “Be Our Guest” begins traditionally enough before suddenly evolving into a Fantasia-esque phantasmagoria. The fireworks, neon lights and unparalleled theatricality of Lumière help put this musical number on par with anything you may find at the Bellagio.
Furthermore, the release of this film was mired in an absurd controversy regarding the inclusion of some homosexual content in the Gaston–LeFou storyline.
The controversy began when director Bill Condon announced that this Beauty would feature a “nice, exclusively gay moment,” which sounds more like something that would take place behind the dance hall during the final minutes of a junior prom. However, this moment (spoiler), in which LeFou (Gad) dances with a man at the end of the film, comprises a portion of a single shot and lasts two seconds. The moment was just about as controversial as casting gay actor Ian McKellen in the role of an anthropomorphized clock.
Inclusion of, and increased representation for, gay characters in cinema is needed, but the aforementioned moment in Beauty should not be considered enough to make international headlines. Perhaps Disney should not have fashioned its first confirmed gay character as a foppish caricature named, in French, “the Fool.”
Nevertheless, while this new Beauty and the Beast may be exciting for nostalgic reasons, it is not vital. We have seen this film before, but with greater effect the first (animated) time around.